Sen. Menendez: Democrats Will Press Home Message

The contentious town hall meetings on health care seem to have thrown the Democrats off their message. Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, who heads the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, says some of the questions being raised by citizens are legitimate.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

We've been watching with great interest the very contentious town meetings that are taking place around the country. Many of them have become opportunities for citizens to vent about efforts to overhaul health care, but they also are talking about the bank bail out, who's getting helped in efforts to turn the economy around, who is not. For the most part, the party in power, the Democrats, are getting hammered in these meetings. Senator Robert Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey, joins us on the telephone to talk about what's happening around the country. He is the chairman of the Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Senator Menendez, what do you think is going on out there? The Republicans appear to be organizing a protest and doing it very well.

Senator ROBERT MENENDEZ (Democrat, New Jersey): Well, they have been. But there's also some legitimate questions by citizens who do go to either a community meeting or town hall meeting or some other venue, and they're confused by the misinformation. And some of that confusion causes legitimate worries. And those are legitimate opportunities to have them understand the truth, that this is really about making them more secure, having greater insurance possibilities, keeping what you have if you like it, but at the same time not having constant denials by health insurance companies, even when you do everything right under your policy.

WERTHEIMER: Senator Menendez, why haven't the Democrats come up with a way to handle these meetings? Because this does look - when you watch it on cable television, when we hear reports about what went on at these meetings on our air - it looks like a rout.

Sen. MENENDEZ: Well, we will continue to find a variety of ways in which we'll communicate with the American people.

WERTHEIMER: Like what?

Sen. MENENDEZ: The president - well, the president is out there. He's got the biggest megaphone in the country. The real question is: Will we have that type of reform? And when we do, the American people, I believe, will be satisfied. They will give us credit for achieving the reforms that they themselves in poll after poll in the country said is what they wanted to see.

WERTHEIMER: Do you think this is getting to be a movement that people really don't like what they're hearing about health care? Whether it's mistaken or not, they're upset.

Sen. MENENDEZ: Well, I don't think it's a movement. I think it's a moment. There's one universe of voices. Maybe some didn't like the results of the last election who are very vocal, but there is a very significant universe who understand that even for those who have health care insurance, they're spending more and more of their family income towards health care and less and less for the other critical demands their families have.

WERTHEIMER: Do I understand you to say you think this very vocal protest represents a minority of feeling about health care?

Sen. MENENDEZ: I think they're very vocal and I think they get the attention, but I do believe a great majority of Americans clearly want to see reform. They may not be the vocal ones, but they're certainly the ones who, in poll after poll, say they want to see health care reform.

WERTHEIMER: The notion that at the end of their lives medical care might be rationed to the elderly is something that has come up over and over again.

Sen. MENENDEZ: And that's pretty outrageous. It's pretty outrageous to suggest that anything in the proposed bill ultimately has some type of committee or panel that some senior would have to get up before or be represented before in terms of their health care. It's absolutely ridiculous. As a matter of fact, the only provision in some of the proposed bills, which is to give counseling through doctors as to the many options that would exist for a person who may have a terminal disease or other life-threatening illness, that they will be empowered to make the decisions themselves, not the government.

WERTHEIMER: Has it occurred to you that it might be just easier to take that out of the bill than to continue to try to deal with it?

Sen. MENENDEZ: Well, we have not come to a final bill, and all those decisions will be made as we move to that moment. But the question is if we're going to let misinformation guide the essence of what good policy is because it would be politically more propitious to take it out, I don't know that that makes for good policy.

WERTHEIMER: Senator, thank you very much for taking so much time with us.

Sen. MENENDEZ: All righty. Take care, and have a great day.

WERTHEIMER: Thank you. Senator Robert Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey. He joined us by telephone from his home state.

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